ACERBIC verbal sparring among rivals is considered par for the course in politics, but when flippant remarks run the risk of trivialising serious issues in the process, it is perhaps time to pause and reflect on whether there are less socially damaging ways to engage in political point-scoring. Now that the PTI government’s long-expected deal with the IMF has been inked, several opposition leaders — including PPP chairman Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari, who has often been praised for seeking the moral high ground in political debates — wasted no time in delivering what they considered witty retorts to Prime Minister Imran Khan’s much-cited pronouncement, when he was in the opposition, that he would rather kill himself than ask for money for the country. While Mr Khan’s hyperbolic rhetoric in combination with his dramatic U-turns often exposes his government to mockery, it hardly elevates the standard of political discourse to respond in the same vein. Rather, matters are worsened by the fact that the subtle impact of such careless jibes, even when intending no offence, reinforce stigmas surrounding mental health and make light of the tragedy of suicide.
The issue here is not the prime minister’s mental state, but the fact that in a country where mental health stressors such as abuse, conflict, poverty, etc are highly prevalent, and contribute significantly to the country’s disease burden — impacting not just health but also productivity — joking about suicide betrays our political leaders’ insensitivity and lack of awareness for an issue that affects an overwhelming number of Pakistanis. At a time of heightened economic anxiety when many are worried about how impending fiscal adjustments will affect their households, and since politicians rarely focus on policies to destigmatise and decriminalise mental illness, the least the latter can do is not seize upon this issue for political mileage. Being more mindful of how casual jokes can affect vulnerable groups won’t rob political humour of its vigour, provided that public figures learn the comedic art of punching up, instead of down.
Published in Dawn, May 15th, 2019